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Fear of the Dark (Fearless Jones Novels)by Walter Mosley
1I WAS EXPECTING ONE KIND of trouble when another came knocking at my door.
A year or so after I opened my Florence Avenue Used Book Shop, I installed four mirrors; one in the upper-right-hand corner of the door frame, one just outside the lower-left-hand side of the window, and the third, and second-largest, mirror was placed inside the window. So by daylight or lamplight at night, all I had to do was pull back the bottom hem of the inside drape to see who was knocking.
I installed my little spying device because if a man wanted to kill you and you asked “Who is it?” on the other side of a thin plank of wood, all he would have to do is open fire and that would be it. You might as well just throw the door open and say “Here I am. Come shoot me.”
Someone might wonder why the owner of a used-book store would even think about armed assassins coming after him at any time, for any reason. After all, this is America we’re talking about. And not only America but Los Angeles in the midfifties—1956 to be exact.
We aren’t talking about the Wild West or a period of social and political unrest. That was the most serene period of a democratic and peaceful nation. Most Americans at that time only worried about the cost of gas going above twenty-nine cents a gallon.
But most Americans weren’t black and they sure didn’t live in South Central L.A. And even if they were my color and they did live in my neighborhood, their lives would have been different.
Through no fault of my own I often found myself in the company of desperate and dangerous men—and women. I associated with murderers, kidnappers, extortionists, and fools of all colors, ages, and temperaments. By nature I am a peaceful man, some might say cowardly. I don’t care what they say. It does not shame me to admit that I would rather run than fight. Sometimes, even with my mirrors, I didn’t go anywhere near the door if the knock was too loud or too stealthy.
And during business hours, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday, I sat at my desk at the top of the staircase so that if someone dangerous walked in I would be able to get away before they even knew I was there; the fourth, and largest, mirror was on the ceiling at the head of the stairs for just that purpose.
Don’t get me wrong; most of my customers were readers, primarily women and children, and unlikely to be looking for trouble. Whole days could go by and no one came to my bookstore (which was also my home), so I could spend long days reading books, uninterrupted and blissful.
But even though I was alone most days and the people who sought me out were, 999 times out of 1,000, looking for a book, there was that one time now and again when someone came to my door bearing malice and a gun.
I often think that this was true because of my decade-long friendship with Fearless Jones. Fearless was tall and thin, jet of color, and stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met. He wasn’t afraid of death or love, threat or imprisonment. Fearless Jones wasn’t even afraid of poverty, which made him a rare man indeed. No one could intimidate him and so he went wherever he wanted and associated with anyone he cared to.
Those anyones often came to me when they were looking for my friend and expressed themselves in ways that Fearless would not have stood for—if he were there. Sometimes Fearless came to me when he was in a jam and needed the clear eye of logic to see his way out. And, because he’d saved my life more than once, I most often agreed to help, with the caveat that my aid wouldn’t throw me into trouble.
The problem was, Fearless didn’t ever feel like he was in trouble.
“Don’t worry,” he’d tell me. “It ain’t all that bad.”
And then someone was shooting at us, and Fearless did some impossible maneuver, and the gunman was disarmed, and Fearless was there smiling, saying, “You see? I told you it was all right.”
So when I heard that knock on my door at 3:51 in the afternoon, I moved the hem of the drape expecting one thing, but instead I saw Ulysses S. Grant IV staring up into the mirror and waving.
“Open up, Paris. It’s me.”
I was a fool. I knew it even then. So what if Useless saw me in my mirror? I didn’t have to open the door. I could have walked upstairs, opened up a copy of Don Quixote that I’d just acquired, and read to my heart’s content.
“Come on, Cousin,” Useless said. “I know you there.”
I should have walked away, but Useless worried me. The kind of trouble he brought was like an infection. He never had a simple yes-or-no kind of problem; it was always “You’re already in a mess. Now how do you plan to get out?”
I opened the door and stood to bar his entrance.
“What do you want?” I asked him.
“Let me by, Cousin,” he said with a grin. “I need some ice water.”
“I’m not askin’ you again, Useless.”
We were the same height, which is to say short, and he was fairly light colored, where I am considered dark (that is unless you see me standing next to Fearless Jones). Ulysses S. Grant IV, whom everyone but his mother and Fearless called Useless, was a petty thief, a liar, a malingerer, and just plain bad luck. His mother and mine were half-sisters, and I’d been dragged off by the ear because of him as far back as I could remember. As young as nine years old I was avoiding Useless.
The last time we’d seen each other was at my previous bookstore. He’d come over asking for a glass of ice water and use of the toilet. After he’d gone I didn’t think much of it. But that night, while I was sleeping, I began to worry. Why had he been there? Who drops by somebody’s place in L.A. for a glass of water?
It was three o’clock in the morning, but I pulled myself out of bed and went into my bathroom. I searched the medicine cabinet and behind the commode and in between the bath towels stacked on a shelf. Nothing.
I made coffee in my hot-plate kitchen and then went back to lift the heavy porcelain lid off the tank of the toilet. Down in the tank was a waterproof rubber sack filled with gold chains of various lengths and designs. Solid gold. The whole thing must have weighed two pounds.
That was 4:00 a.m.
Fearless was at my place in less than half an hour and he took the swag to hide it elsewhere.
I was in bed again by five.
At 6:47 the police were at my door with a warrant.
They went right to the toilet. Somehow they managed to shatter the lid.
It was late morning before they stopped turning over my bookstore. Those cops flipped through more books in that one day than most librarians do in a year.
After all that they arrested me. Milo Sweet, the bail bondsman, got me a good lawyer who told the cops that they had nothing on me and that any accusations made against me had to be proven or at least strongly indicated.
A week later an ugly guy named José Favor came by my house.
“Where the gold, mothahfuckah?” he said to me right off. One of his nostrils was wider than its brother, and the knuckles of his fists were misshapen, probably from beating on smaller men like me.
“You will have to speak to my agent,” I told the man, who had already grabbed me by the collar of my shirt.
“Fearless Jones,” I said, and he let me go.
“What about him?” the ugly black man with the round eyes asked.
“He told me that anyone wanna know anything about gold they should come and see him.”
José didn’t say any more. I never heard about the gold again. Fearless came by the next week and took me to Tijuana, where we drank tequila and met some very nice young ladies who taught us Spanish and made us breakfast four mornings in a row.
I hadn’t seen Useless since then and I hadn’t missed him for a second.
“I’M IN TROUBLE, PARIS,” Ulysses said, looking pathetic.
“I need help.”
“I sell books, not help.”
“It’s about that time with the gold chains, right?” he asked me.
I didn’t even answer.
“That wasn’t my fault, Paris. The cops got a hold’a me and like to beat me half to death. I told ’em that I hid ’em in yo’ sto’. I told ’em you didn’t know nuthin’ about it.”
I could have asked him why did they arrest me, then? But that would have opened a conversation, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with Useless Grant.
“I need a place to hide out,” he said.
“We blood, Paris.”
“That might be, but I ain’t bleedin’ for you.”
I thought Useless was going to break down and cry. But then he looked at my face and saw that I wouldn’t let him in if he was having a heart attack. He wasn’t getting across my threshold even if he fell down dead.
“Well, do me one favor, okay?” he said.
I just stared at him.
“Tell Three Hearts that there’s a man named Hector wrote my name on a black slip’a paper. Tell her that I tried to make it work with Angel, but I guess I was mudfoot just like she said.”
I didn’t say a thing. Nothing. Useless was less than that to me. I heard his words and I would repeat them if I ever saw his mother again, but he wasn’t going to make it into my house.
No sir, not in a thousand years.
Copyright © 2006 by Walter Mosley
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